Return of the natives
It’s hard to miss a Cornish chough with its fiery red bill and matching legs, its daring acrobatics and raucous cry. Catch sight of one on a walk along the Lizard cliffs and the moment will stay with you forever. But miss this emblematic maritime bird Cornwall did, for thirty worrying years.
For the second half of the twentieth century, the closest most people came to spotting one was on a Cornish coat of arms perched between its fellow icons, the miner and the fisherman. By the 1970s, its existence for many children had all but entered the realms of fiction.
So you can imagine the joy when, in 2001, three pioneering wild choughs were spotted back on the cliffs. That excitement turned to cautious hope as two of the birds started to nest, the third becoming known as ‘the gooseberry’. Chicks were born, another crucial breeding season arrived and it wasn’t only the bird-loving community on tenterhooks as the parent choughs nurtured their growing brood. Gooseberry seemed happy to hang around too, and thanks to a huge collective effort from locals including all-night vigils against egg thieves, the chough family grew. It wasn’t long before the next generation was also seen carrying twigs in its beak.
When the success story of the return of Cornwall’s iconic bird to its home shores made the national news, Britain cheered.
The choughs’ decline was no mystery. Once linked with the departed soul of King Arthur and feared as a fire-raiser because of its flame-red colouring, naturalists at the end of the 18th century blamed decreasing numbers on sportsmen and trophy hunters. But jump forward a century or so and the real clue lay in the chough’s old Cornish name ‘Palores’, meaning digger. Choughs are ground feeders, using their long curved beaks to pick out tasty ‘leatherjackets’ (daddy long legs’ larvae) and ants from the turf.
Lack of habitat was the true culprit for their demise. Sheep, cattle and ponies were once an integral part of the cliff top landscape, their constant munching keeping the scrub under control. Ponies and carts fell out of use and tracks became overgrown.
When farmers began to move their animals inland where they were easier to manage, the choughs found it more and more difficult to winkle out their nutritional treasure. Botanically famous plants like Land Quillwort, Fringed Rupturewort and Dwarf Rush were in danger of being lost for ever.
But humans have a habit of redeeming themselves. Forget trophy hunters, egg thieves and farming practices, it’s time to champion the conservationist!
In the 1980s and ‘90s, generous bequests to our Neptune Coastline Campaign from people whose lives had been enriched by The Lizard helped us and other wildlife loving organisations draw up a corridor of protection around this dramatic coastline.
By working closely with tenant farmers and other Lizard landowners, we were able to reintroduce sure-footed cattle breeds like Dexters and North Devons to the cliff tops once more. Moorland ponies came too, looked after by our own National Trust rangers.
If you walk the cliffs from Black head to Predannack in spring and summer, you will see these rare wild flowers now flourishing. Look up and you might well see the progeny of those three adventurous choughs wheeling around the open skies too!